Part 1: Regret
Akagi finds himself thinking: the first time Mitsui plays like the old Mitsui, it’s already too late.
It’s the winter tournament and Akagi is watching on the sidelines, Kogure a nervous presence beside him. They both brought their textbooks with them so they could cram on the train. They’re taking a practice entrance exam next week—but neither of them would have missed this game for anything.
On the court, Miyagi has the ball. He’s dribbling more warily than he used to. The kid is captain now, trying too hard to do too much, and Akagi wishes he wouldn’t. It's giving Akagi unpleasant flashbacks to himself. Nope, Miyagi can’t fill the gaping holes in his team, no matter how hard he runs.
Kogure shouts encouragements, and further down the line Haruko and Ayako and the benchwarmers do too. Akagi shouts along with them, but there’s sweat rolling down the collar on his uniform. He scratches his neck, undoes the button, and tries not to think about physics formulas as he watches bodies fly across the court.
They’re not flying like they used to.
Sakuragi is missing from the tableau; it’s almost a poetic loss. Kakuta desperately tries to hold the centre, but the centre does not hold. Rukawa seems strangely stiff on the court without his usual partner in delinquency to loosen him up. But he does willingly inbound to Shiozaki, who is frequently wide open thanks to the brazen disregard of the other team. Shiozaki looks surprised every time the ball is between his hands.
And then there’s Mitsui...
Well, at least the idiot isn’t heaving like an old geezer on a walk in the park, the way he used to. He isn’t limping on that gimp knee of his. And he isn’t waiting at the three-point line for someone to feed him the ball. No, Mitsui Hisashi is running and guarding, lowering his hips and stealing the ball and rebounding like he doesn’t expect his gas to run out any time soon.
“Pass!” Mitsui is calling orders at Shiozaki, who is happy to obey. But the ball sails magnificently wide of Mitsui’s hands—it’s going to Miyagi, who steals it from the air without even looking, like air himself. It’s very distracting. Meanwhile Mitsui pivots, does a fancy fox trot shuffle with his feet, pivots again real quick, and then he’s completely free of his mark for half a second. Miyagi passes—but no, it’s not to Mitsui, he’s shoving it back at Rukawa, who’s zipping across the top of the key with his usual lanky, fox-like grace. Then Rukawa is in the key, and the rest is easy, or that’s how it looks when you’ve got an All Japan player yawning his way to the layup.
“Nice!” Mitsui claps Shiozaki on the back. “Let’s get one more!” The two of them start running back to centre court, Shiozaki ducking his head a little at the praise.
Akagi expects this state of affairs to last for the first thirty minutes only, but even in the second half Mitsui keeps going strong. The idiot used to be a captain of a team that won at middle school nationals, Akagi reminds himself. MVP and everything. He used to smoke cigarettes too. He quit cold turkey five months ago.
Too bad it had to happen so late. Too late for Mitsui to impress the scouts, the score the way it is.
Akagi calculates the odds and shakes his head, thoughts drifting to calculus.
Mitsui finds himself thinking: the first time Miyagi starts acting like a captain, it’s already too late.
The team is huddled close.
“Kakuta was open,” says Miyagi. Says, not yells, calm enough that his weird afro-hair isn’t bobbing. “You shoulda passed.”
Rukawa gives a short, laconic nod. “Probably.”
But Rukawa is listening.
An hour ago, he wouldn’t listen. Idiot thought he could do it all himself. He was wrong. But now he’s listening, so maybe...
Damn it, they’re still not going to win. Mitsui glances up at the scoreboard, and it’s showing a fourteen-point gap. Why couldn’t Miyagi rein in their idiot superstar earlier?
Because Akagi should have been grooming future-captain Miyagi for a whole year, not a few hasty weeks, that’s why. If Miyagi hadn’t been stuck in the hospital...if he’d never been suspended...
“We’re going to use a screen play,” says Anzai, just as calm as Miyagi, even though all of them can do the math, even Mitsui the king of F’s in math. Thirty seconds per possession, two minutes left, four more plays, even four more three pointers only adds up to twelve, they would need to guard perfectly and steal too, there’s just no way—
“I’ll cut into their passing lanes,” Miyagi says, still in that captainly way that makes Mitsui burn with regret. “I get the ball to you,” and he looks at all of them, not just Rukawa and Mitsui, “and you better damn well make it good.”
He doesn’t need to say anything else. They break, stride back onto the court like they own it, and lose magnificently by nine points. Five points from Rukawa, three from Mitsui; one foul shot by Shiozaki and one block by Kakuta; one steal by Miyagi and a whole lot of assists. One last moment on the court for Mitsui, who tells himself not to blubber like a moron as the final whistle blows.
The rest of them are trying to make the best of it. Miyagi’s congratulating them all on a job well down and slapping butts, making jokes. He’s a good captain. Not a great captain yet. The captain he could’ve been if Mitsui hadn’t—
“I can’t believe you got that steal, captain,” says Kakuta, smile wobbling. “I don’t even know where you came from.”
“They’re calling me King of Thieves now, right?” Miyagi puffs up his chest theatrically. “I’ll add Best Point Guard in Kanagawa soon enough.”
“But only because Maki and Fujima are retiring,” quips Yasuda, coming off the bench.
Rukawa is too lazy to roll his eyes, but they can almost hear the mental eyeroll going on in his empty head.
“Ah,” Shiozaki sighs, hands on his hips and head leaning back. The lights shine down heavily on his sweaty face. “I was hoping to give Mitsui-senpai a little more time.”
They all turn to look at the fossil on the court. Like they except him to give a speech or something. Or to start crying. Mitsui turns away before his eyes start to water.
“Come on, old man,” says Miyagi, reaching up to shove Mitsui forward. “We had a good run, right?”
“Right,” Mitsui says, voice like gravel.
He follows his captain into the locker room: the thief who stole from the King of Thieves.
Miyagi finds himself thinking: the first time Rukawa starts passing like he means it, it’s already too late.
He doesn’t harp on it though. Sure, it would’ve been nice if they'd made it past the second round in the Winter Tournament. A nice grad present for the senpais. But hey, Miyagi knows better than to look backward. He’s not that kind of captain.
“We’re going to kick ass at the Interhigh,” he says instead.
“You think so?” Aya-chan side-eyes him, her big gooey brown eyes framed by her curly hair, and Miyagi melts until she snaps her fingers in her face. “You remember the new guy Kainan picked up? The superstar do-everything middle school MVP?”
“Yeah,” says Miyagi. “With any luck he’ll blow up like Mitsui-senpai and try to destroy his team too.”
Aya-chan really gives it to him for that one.
Once he’s recovered, and she’s gone off to train the newbs, Miyagi goes back to watching his ace. He’s doing more of this nowadays—watching, just watching, putting the team before his own skill development. To some extent. He’s not going to end up like Fujima, because Miyagi’s court vision is way too good for that. He can watch it all and himself too.
That said...being a captain means more than just watching!
“Rukawa!” he shouts. “Stop slacking!”
The return stare is like a blank wall. Miyagi stares back, eyes half-lidded, gangsta pose up, until the blank wall becomes an annoyed wall. “I am playing hard,” Rukawa says. “I just made a shot. Maybe you didn’t see.”
“When you forget about the rest of your team,” Miyagi says evenly, “you’re slacking.”
“I’m not being lazy. I’m doing all the work.”
“For you, that’s slacking.”
For once, Rukawa looks dumbfounded and not just dumb.
The ref, Haruko, makes a nervous gesture. “Let’s get back to the game, everyone.”
Miyagi gives her a mental apology and keeps on burning his eyes into Rukawa’s. “You get it? Teamwork is a skill. It’s not some magical thing you’re born with. Take it from me,” he thumbs his chest, “bringing out the best in your teammates is hard, and you gotta work at it or you’ll never beat me, much less the best in Japan.”
Rukawa, true to form, doesn’t react. Visibly, anyway. Miyagi’s been captain long enough now to see the gears slowly grinding in that rusty brain.
“Nice, captain!” calls out Yasuda, who’s point-guarding for the non-Rukawa team (i.e. the definitely-gonna-lose team). “You said something kinda smart!”
“Nice, Yasuda. I think you just earned ten sprints.”
On the sidelines, the first years snicker. Miyagi sees Aya-chan whapping one on the head with her fan and he grins at her. Ever since Akagi left Yasuda has turned into Miyagi’s biggest heckler, which is unfuriating because the guy still sounds and looks like he must be the nicest person in this gym. But now Yasuda looks like he just sucked on a lemon.
“Nice, senpai,” says the most shameless of the first years. “Everyone is nice.”
“Especially your captain,” Miyagi says. “Ten sprints for everyone, for standing around in the middle of a game.”
Groans all around.
But after the promise of punishment, they all play better. And here’s the best thing: Rukawa passes. He passes really well. Of course he does. He’s Rukawa. Suddenly, everyone on his side is a weapon.
“Nice play.” Shiozaki pats his kouhai Sasaoka on the head, who says dazedly, “How did I even get the ball?”
Their gazes drift to Rukawa, who hunches over and skulks away.
Miyagi is dreaming up an amazing double point guard play (starring himself, with Rukawa as best supporting actor) when a ball sails rudely at his head.
“Ryota.” It’s Aya-chan. Actually, not so rudely. “I think it’s time to give our ace a little competition, hey? Show him what a real no-look pass looks like.”
At that Rukawa’s eyes begin to blaze—the way they haven’t done since Sakuragi left—and Miyagi grins again, running a hand through his hair for effect. Yeah, he’ll give Mr. All Japan something to think about all right.
The effect is ruined a minute later when he’s throwing his jersey over his head and his awesome hair gets stuck in the neckhole (Aya-chan at least doesn’t laugh too hard, even if everyone else does), but who cares? Rukawa is a blooming idiot and Miyagi is a late bloomer as a captain, but they’re going to open up a pretty sizeable can of whoopass in the spring if he has anything to say about it.
Which he does.
“Let’s win!” he barks at his team, all of them, on both sides of the court.
Rukawa almost smiles.
Rukawa thinks: when Sakuragi returns, it’s too late.
“The tensai is back!” Sakuragi puts his hands behind his head and strikes a pose. “And this tensai’s back is back too! Ha ha ha ha ha!”
The crowd cheers wildly—not for Sakuragi, but for the ace of Kainan, who's prancing around one court over. Rukawa scowls more than usual, at both of them. It's only warmups and the level of stupid is already way higher than last year's Winter Cup.
"Listen to them cheer! Just wait until I'm on the court! Wahahaha!!!"
Meanwhile Akagi’s sister hovers nervously.
“Are you sure you’re not overdoing it?” One delicate finger reaches out to poke at Sakuragi’s spine. She stops just short as she realizes what she’s doing. “That was an amazing dunk, but I really don’t think you should—”
“He’s been given a completely clean bill of health,” Iishi points out. “Let him play.”
“I suppose, if the doctor says so...”
“I won’t drag you down,” Sakuragi shows his teeth. “I was practicing as part of my rehabilitation. With really strong guys! This tensai is ready to save you all!”
The freshmen are beaming. “You came back just in time.”
“Yeah, we can really use your height!”
“The rest of us are pretty terrible...”
They’re all idiots.
“Don’t be so sad, stupid fox!” Sakuragi guffaws. “Just because I’m making you look bad doesn’t mean you need to worry; it’s for the good of the team!”
“Moron,” Rukawa says reflexively.
“You’re just jealous! I know it’s hard, being in my shadow.” Sakuragi jabs a finger dangerously close to Rukawa’s face. “But you don’t have to worry about anything anymore, fox. I’ll guard, I’ll score, I’ll do it all! Gwa ha ha ha ha!”
Idiot, idiot, idiot.
“Come on,” says Yasuda, the only one of the seniors crazy enough to still be on the team. “Game’s gonna start. Let’s huddle up.”
“This is only a practice match,” Anzai-sensei says to them, “but let’s treat this very seriously. This is a test run of our new team. We don’t have Miyagi-kun’s leadership anymore, nor his skills. We’re all going to miss Kakuta-kun’s solid defense and Shiozaki-kun’s shooting.”
“I still don’t think they needed to leave,” Sakuragi mutters. “Who cares about entrance exams?”
“But I do not think,” and here Anzai-sensei’s glasses glint, “that we are weak. We just have to go back to our basics.” Sakuragi makes a face. “I don’t mean those kinds of basics.”
The eyes behind the glasses drift to Rukawa. “Run and gun. Like your first Interhigh. With Sakuragi-kun here,” he puts a hand on the shoulder of that idiot, who lights up like a dim bulb shot with electricity, “we are going to get a lot of rebounds, a lot of fast breaks.”
“A lot of slam dunks,” Haruko chimes in.
“Some slam dunks.” Anzai-sensei smiles, cheeks round as marshmallows.
“Heee,” Sakuragi makes a stupid noise at Haruko.
Haruko immediately blushes.
Rukawa has definitely had enough of all this talking.
As they line up for the opening bow, the monkey-headed moron elbows him (the other team glares at this outward display of disrespect) and says, “Yo, fox. You better not slack off. This tensai is watching!”
Rukawa bristles. When he answers, he sounds icy even to himself. “I don’t slack off. Anymore.”
Those round monkey-eyes go rounder, stupider. “Huh?”
“Bow,” Rukawa intones, and his team bows.
Sakuragi, despite having a good ten centimeters on the other centre, loses the jump ball. Rukawa leaps up and leans way back and grabs the ball anyway.
“How the hell—” the other team’s captain sputters.
Rukawa dribbles, fast and hard. He is already halfway to the basket.
“Damn it, fast break!”
He is steaming mad. He’s not sure why.
Then he realizes why when the defenders collapse on his position and he sees, out of the corner of his eye—Sakuragi Hanamichi, perfectly positioned, hands waiting—and Rukawa, body trained to it now, passes the ball back without a second thought.
(It used to be so hard, it took so much damn work to get to this point, he could always see those holes in the defense where a ball fits through and a body doesn't, but he had to learn to use those holes, and no one could see how hard it was, they weren’t here—)
“No way!” Sakuragi exclaims as he slams the ball through the hoop.
Shohoku’s centre holds; he hits the ground like an earthquake, his mouth gapes like a black hole, his brain shatters like a supernova.
He points a finger at Rukawa. “You gave me the ball!”
“Thanks for doing the work for me.”
Sakuragi visibly fumes. “That’s what you learned while I was away?”
At halftime (they’re winning by over twenty points), he sees Haruko whisper something urgently at Sakuragi. Sakuragi, who stares openly at Rukawa.
Rukawa ignores the both of them and starts heading to the bench for some water.
Rukawa drinks some water.
“I scored more points than you did in the first half. That’s normal, of course! Their centre can’t match my colossal height! But, uh, I noticed I got the ball a lot...”
Rukawa drinks some more water.
“I hear you learned some moves from Ryochin. I didn’t know he taught you to be human too. Very weird for a fox!”
Rukawa’s definitely going to have to go to the bathroom.
At the lack of a return insult, Sakuragi’s mouth screws up in a sour lemon shape. “I have to admit, those were some good passes. Did I just say that?”
Rukawa puts the water bottle down. “Thanks,” he says, not waiting for the big dumb idiot’s big dumb reaction, and heads to the bathroom.
In the bathroom he splashes water on his face. He wipes the sweat off his neck with his towel. He looks in the mirror.
He pretends to smile.
“Aaaaaahh!” someone screams behind him. “A monster!”
Rukawa stops pretending and heads back out, to the game.
Sakuragi doesn’t think: Rukawa is passing to me now, but it’s too late.
Sakuragi doesn’t think like that.